By Jarune Uwujaren
This question, y’all. This question.
It’s always on the tip of someone’s tongue––when a Jessie Williams leaves his Black wife for a white girl, or a Serena Williams marries a white dude, or an Unidentified Williams who’s a friend of a friend on Facebook talks about how it feels to repeatedly see Black public figures loving damn near everyone but each other.
No matter how broad or nuanced a conversation about Black people dating white people is or must be, there is always a radio station, publication, or Facebook commenter who just wants to know how the conversation affects the woke card status of white-partnered Black people.
So a Black person’s white partner shouldn’t come to Black Pride? Okay, but can I date a white person and still be woke?
So you’re frustrated because you’re interested in dating Black men but you’re constantly having to ask yourself if they’re even attracted to Black women because of how many of them treat white girls like the pinnacle of femininity. All right, all right, but can I date a white person and still be woke?
So you’re finding it hard to date within your queer community because of how white-centered it is and you’re tired of seeing other Black people dating everyone but each other. I see you, I see you—but if I dated a white person would I still be woke?
It sounds ridiculous when I put this question next to what people actually tend to talk about when they express their personal frustrations around white-partnered Black people, but this is exactly where the question tends to pop up. It’s as if there is no allowance for people to work out the politics of intimate relationships without being pressed to center whiteness yet again by handing a woke pass and a complimentary +1 invite to the cookout to everyone who gets uncomfortable.
“Can woke Black people date white people?” is the wrong question to ask because it is by its very nature seeking outside approval. I’m willing to bet that the person asking the question isn’t interested in hearing a hard “no,” which is going to be the answer from a lot of Black people who are (justifiably) tired of being asked to care about white people. And the person asking is definitely not interested in dumping their partner, changing their dating habits, or hinging their personal decisions on that answer either.
The truth is, there are better questions to ask oneself about the personal choice (and yes, it is a choice) involved in being Black and dating a white person or people. If that’s you, it is not the job of all other Black people to make you feel good about that choice, to make your partner feel comfortable, to make you feel “woke” as a Black person who is adjacent to whiteness, or to make you feel secure in your Black identity. Most, if not all, of that work—that emotional labor, criticism, and reflection—is on you as the person making a decision that no one but you and your partner can consent to.
I’m saying this as a person who, full disclosure, has a white partner and doesn’t care who other people date, but I’m also saying this as someone who doesn’t think it’s unreasonable for other Black people to side-eye me or anyone else on sight for that. Those of us with white partners really do engage in some self-centering, fragile, overly reactive behavior when we or our partners feel threatened. It…kind of…reminds me of another common fragility. Hmm.
There are a lot of problems that come along with un-examined proximity to whiteness, and intimate partnerships can bring those issues into communal Black spaces very easily. That’s why it’s important to go beyond deciding whether one can be woke and date a white person and begin asking instead about the whole host of behaviors surrounding that decision. I’ve asked or am asking myself things like:
Why am I dating a white person?
I’m serious. Why? When I’m Black, my family is Black, and my political center is Black, why did I end up dating a white person? Could it be related to internalized anti-Blackness, loneliness, genuinely clicking with someone, growing up in a white neighborhood, currently living in a predominantly white area, or seeing few models of Black love in the media or around me that I could aspire to?
I find that a lot of times people will respond to a conversation about interracial dating by describing themselves as an exception to the idea that the personal is the political—“I can’t help whom I love.” “Black people wouldn’t date me.” “I’m too different from other Black people, and I didn’t want to keep looking.”
Seeing these surface-level responses over and over again from multiple people is why this question has become important to me, because something is not being examined that would be interesting (and useful) to examine.
In my case, I highly doubt it’s a coincidence that there are three women in my family with non-Black husbands, that we were African immigrants whose parents didn’t strongly identify themselves as Black, and that I’ve struggled with internalized anti-Blackness and the desire for approval. And I keep seeing bits of things I’ve spent years working through and getting past mirrored in surface-level analyses that treat romantic relationships as if they are above examination or critique.
I see the desire to be included in Blackness alongside undisguised anti-Blackness. I see the backing away from meaningful critique into colorblindness. I see the claims of differentness and uniqueness being used to push away criticism. Going toward the uncomfortable shit is better than ignoring it, because when you have this many Black people fucked up over the same thing, it’s going to show up in community.
Do I center my own or my partner’s comfort in my interactions with community?
A loving and respectful partner knows and respects boundaries. Black space, Black community, and Black conversations all have hard boundaries. A white (or non-Black) partner who doesn’t respect those boundaries is an absolute menace because a lot of white people think their Black partner is an automatic invitation to invade and encroach on Black people’s shit, Black people be damned.
I’m talking about white people who get too comfortable. White people who think they’re down and start throwing around the n-word because they once slept with a Black person. White people who openly fetishize the Black people they date but think they’re not racist because, look, they’re dating Black people. White people who think going to Black events and pushing their way into Black spaces is a good way to learn about our culture. White people who fetishize mixed people or having mixed children but want none of the political ramifications of raising a Black child in America.
The vast majority of Black people do not want to deal with these macroaggressive and racist people, but many of us have fallen prey to them because, lo and behold, they are more than happy to sleep with us. And when we’re not careful, they and their racist behavior traipse right into Black spaces with an unhealthy dose of entitlement, ignorance, and the approval of their Black partners.
So ask—am I putting a white person’s comfort, or my comfort, before the needs of my community by encouraging invasive and voyeuristic behavior in Black spaces? And am I ready to check myself and my partner if that ever becomes the case, even if it isn’t now?
Do I default to defensiveness when others discuss the politics of interracial dating, even when the discussion isn’t personal?
I’ve observed many reasons why people have stopped assuaging people’s feelings and started just defaulting to not fucking with white-partnered Black people, and one of them is the unnecessary defensiveness of a lot of people who have white partners. We all know how annoying it is to have a discussion about race and racism and have a white person hop in to say, “Oh gosh, most white people aren’t like that! You really shouldn’t stereotype!” Most of us wouldn’t bat an eye at these people from the “not all white people” “All Lives Matter” brigade getting told to stop focusing on themselves and their feelings.
I’m not saying these two situations are equivalent, but it is still really annoying and unnecessary to be in the midst of a conversation about the politics of interracial dating between white and Black people and wind up talking about how totally hurt someone is that he and his Woke White Wife aren’t being welcomed and accepted even though he was a nerd and Black women never wanted him and he met his wife in Portland where there are only two Black people anyway and his wife does more for the Black community than some Black people and and and…
Meanwhile, a potentially meaningful conversation is derailed, someone’s unwanted life story is being aired to a bunch of people who have neither the emotional capacity nor time to care, a white person has been put on a pedestal and woke-ified just so someone didn’t have to critique themselves, and everyone is tired.
The problem with these kinds of interactions is the same problem inherent to the question, “Can I date a white person and still be woke?” We do ourselves a disservice when we reduce a topic rich in the potential to explore power dynamics, intimacy, racial identity, and desirability (broad issues) to a question of whether the Woke Committee approves of people’s personal lives and decisions (overly specific issues).
If you want to date a white person or people, no one can stop you from doing so, and most people aren’t concerned with you in particular. But we all have to look at what and who we bring to bed with us every night because they deeply inform the thinking, living, and working we do beyond closed doors.
Jarune is a writer, editor, and savory grits stan currently based in Baltimore, MD. In case you were curious, the name is Nigerian, the person with the name is American, and the e is not silent. Jarune has been editing and writing on the subjects of social justice, race, queer identity, and feminism since the start of their career in 2012. You can check out more of their writing here.